Every year Crisis Group publishes two additional Watch List updates that complement its annual Watch List for the EU, most recently published in January and May 2020. These publications identify major crises and conflict situations where the European Union and its member states can generate stronger prospects for peace. The Autumn Update of the Watch List 2020 includes entries on Afghanistan, Colombia, Kosovo-Serbia, Lebanon and Somalia.
COVID-19 is still with very much with us, but it is not too soon to draw some tentative conclusions as to its implications for global peace and security.
The virus has upended millions of lives, wrecked livelihoods and sharpened disputes between government and opposition in country after country. Yet equally striking has been the pandemic’s so far marginal influence on fighting in major warzones. Where there were opportunities for peace, COVID-19 hasn’t derailed them. Where there weren’t, it hasn’t created them. Fears of a major uptick in violence as governments grew distracted by the health emergency have not materialised; hopes of coronavirus-inspired ceasefires championed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres didn’t take shape, either.
As we detail below, the virus’s extensive presence across Afghanistan didn’t prevent intra-Afghan talks from beginning, albeit after delays. Fighting in Yemen has worsened, again notwithstanding COVID-19’s dangerous spread. In Somalia, also covered in this update, the virus appears to have taken a large toll but brought no major shift in the course of the long war against Al-Shabaab or in the thorny relations between Mogadishu and the regions. Even election delays over the past year have been influenced more by discord over rules than by the pandemic.
In the Sahel, contrary to widespread worry, jihadists have not (yet) exploited governments’ preoccupation with the virus to intensify their attacks. Nor was COVID-19 a major factor behind Mali’s recent coup, fuelled instead by longstanding popular dissatisfaction with poor governance and the state’s inability to curb armed violence.
Elsewhere, from Libya to Syria to the Great Lakes, pre-COVID dynamics are in most ways of a piece with those that followed the outbreak.
True, in parts of the world – as we outline in the case of Colombia – armed groups have taken advantage of the virus to consolidate territorial control; in others, incumbents have used it to entrench their authority or repress their rivals. But thus far those appear to be the exceptions rather than the rule.
All true. And yet: if the immediate impact of the pandemic on the trajectory of armed conflicts is hard to discern, its longer-term repercussions almost certainly will be deeply felt. The economic shock – the deepest, most globally synchronised since World War II – cannot but profoundly mark the conflict landscape. It already has: Lebanon, covered below, has been especially hard hit, its economy in dire straits even before the pandemic and the horrific port explosion only amplifying the financial toll of COVID-19 restrictions and popular fury at its ruling class. As the state’s reach and capacity recede, risks of localised violence mount. Add Sudan to the list of concerns: the deterioration in living conditions that fuelled its uprising last year has only worsened since and without major outside support could upset its fragile political transition.
Other states – from Algeria to Ethiopia to Bolivia – also appear vulnerable to waves of protests, potentially met with crackdowns. That leaders have tended to take decisions both necessary and unpopular without consulting their rivals or society at large compounds the challenge. More broadly, growing inequality (in access to everything from healthcare to employment to food), runaway inflation and governance dysfunctionality, traditional tell-tale signs of impending conflict, all are on the rise.
Elections – another conflict risk factor – also will be proliferating: 2021 promises to be an especially busy election year due to all the polls pushed back from 2020.
Another theme coursing through this Watch List are the enduring –and worsening – broader geopolitical trends. Most striking are tensions between the U.S. and China, heightened by the virus, reflections of the scrimmage between a declining hegemon and an impatient aspirant. Beijing sees itself the victim of U.S. attempts to hold it back, notably in the technological field; Washington, along with others, sees early signs of Chinese bullying in its dealings with Taiwan, Hong Kong, India, or in the South China Sea – not to mention Canada, whose citizen and Crisis Group colleague, Michael Kovrig, it continues to arbitrarily detain almost two years after his arrest, in a brazen act of hostage diplomacy.
Europe must navigate that particularly treacherous relationship, alongside two others. The poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny further soured Moscow’s relations with most EU capitals, especially Berlin, traditionally keener than others to maintain reasonable working relations with Russia. The Belarus standoff has hardly helped. Initially a purely domestic dispute, the crisis threatens to morph into yet another front in the tussle between Russia and Europe in their shared neighbourhood. With Turkey too, Europe’s relations have taken a tumble in the past few months. If Ankara feels increasingly besieged and hemmed in by an array of hostile states, many in Europe and beyond fret about Turkey’s regional interventions. The result is a dangerous standoff in the eastern Mediterranean pitting Turkey against Greece and Cyprus, but also France, Egypt, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
Europe stands at the centre of both crises, a key protagonist with imperfect tools. Its instrument of choice – sanctions – is of decreasing marginal value. It has been used to little effect against Russia; is unlikely to change Belarus President Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s mind; and could backfire perilously with Turkey, risking further confrontation and prompting Ankara to allow thousands of migrants to cross its border with Europe. That leaves thankless diplomacy which, in the case of the eastern Mediterranean, means pushing Ankara on the one hand, and Athens and its allies on the other, to de-escalate, return to talks, and aim to achieve understandings on gas revenue sharing, migration, and maritime delimitation.
I cannot end this introduction without mentioning an event that, perhaps as much as anything mentioned above, will have an impact on the direction the world – and its conflicts – takes. On 3 November, Americans will go to the polls to elect their president. The result may not be known on that day, it may not be known for a while, and it is not too far-fetched to fear that it may not be known without the kind of protracted political standoff, civil unrest and even violence the U.S. has become accustomed to bemoan in others rather than experience itself. Given the risks, Crisis Group is, for the first time in our quarter-century history, covering U.S. domestic politics and the build-up to November’s vote. The notion of American exceptionalism has always been dubious, deserving of a quiet retirement. Few would have imagined that it would be put to rest in such a sad, distressing way.
Robert Malley President & CEO of Crisis Group September 2020